Kansas Supreme Court says not so fast on Holcomb 2 coal-fired power plant

The Sierra Club scored a major victory in the courts when all of the Kansas Supreme Court justices sent the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s permit allowing the construction of the Holcomb 2 coal-fired power plant back to the state agency for reconsideration.

Holcomb, Kansas, is a town of about 2,000 people in Finney County, best known as the setting for the grisly murder of the Clutter family just outside of town in 1959, later chronicled in Truman Capote’s 1966 classic In Cold Blood. For Kansas bureaucrats, Holcomb is better known as an endless battleground for a proposed coal-fire power-plant expansion that has gone through a tortured history now for several years.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruling on Friday will prolong the ugly and circuitous path that Holcomb 2 has traveled, which now features a road-stop for tighter federal regulations. 

Holcomb 2 has been the punching bag of environmental groups like Sierra Club that aren’t keen on seeing more coal-fired power plants, particularly those that may not operate within the federal guidelines for controlling air emissions.

The permit process for Holcomb 2, which would be operated by Sunflower Electric Power Corporation, stoked concerns from Sierra Club, especially when it was discovered that KDHE employees were clocking long hours to get the permit issued in December 2010, before they thought new emission regulations would take hold on New Year’s Day 2011 and drive up the cost of the plant.

Before that, former KDHE head Roderick Bremby and erstwhile Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius seemed to take a dim view of Holcomb 2. That changed when Sebelius took a job in Washington, D.C., and her successor Mark Parkinson fired Bremby and seemed to grease the skids for the power plant expansion’s approval.

The Kansas Supreme Court, however, found that the KDHE seemed to misinterpret rules about air emissions. Holcomb 2 received its permit on December 16, 2010, which was actually after the stricter Environmental Protection Agency guidelines governing emissions for nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide (both greenhouse gases) took hold in April and August that same year. 

The KDHE tried to argue that new federal regulations didn’t necessarily apply to the Holcomb 2 permit because Kansas hadn’t gotten around to updating its own standards to conform with federal laws. EPA laws give states three years to update their regulations, but the Kansas Supreme Court agreed with Sierra Club’s argument that the waiting period doesn’t allow permits to dance around federal regulations in the meantime.

Backed into a corner, the KDHE asked that Supreme Court justices defer to their interpretation of the law. But the court responded that the job of interpreting laws belongs to them, not a state agency.

The Kansas Supreme Court sent the permitting process back to KDHE, which will now presumably have to give deference to tighter EPA emissions guidelines.

Read the opinion if you want.
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